A Social History of Literacy in Japan

A Social History of Literacy in Japan

Edited and translated by Richard Rubinger

Hardback, 250 Pages


March 2021

£80.00, $125.00

  • About This Book
  • Reviews
  • Author Information
  • Series
  • Table of Contents
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About This Book

Despite the great interest in and the availability of enormous literature about education in Japan, this book is a translation of the first work written in Japanese on the history of literacy in Japan. The authors are each accomplished scholars of Japanese educational history, and each provides solid empirical evidence and original analyses of literacy in their own particular specialty, from Heian aristocrats, to religious sects in the medieval period, to Christian believers in the sixteenth century, to a variety of farmers and merchants in early modern times. 

The book is unique in the sense that literacy in Japan is analysed with a high degree of methodological sophistication backed by empirical evidence in the form of “signatures” or personal marks on documents, on so many topics. The result is to show the often fallacious and easy generalizations made about literacy in Japan and to show that evidence exists to enable more robust empirical investigations to be undertaken. This book will make it possible for the Japanese case to be used more meaningfully worldwide and in comparative studies of literacy. 


"A welcome and important collection of Japanese scholarship on literacy in Japan, with case studies that range across society and through history, from Heian to early Meiji. The textured empirical evidence helps to clarify, and dispel, some of the common generalizations about who could read and write what in Japan before modern times." — Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History, Columbia University, US

"A fascinating book on a historical subject of prime importance but hitherto forgotten in Japanese studies research. Richard Rubinger, in the continuity of his personal work on the history of literacy and illiteracy in Japan, offers here a set of contributions from the best Japanese specialists in this subject, covering a wide range of topics and periods. Brilliant and stimulating!" — Christian Galan, Professor, University Toulouse-Jean Jaurès & French Research Institute on East Asia (Inalco, Paris University, CNRS)

"The translation work of Dick Rubinger and his colleagues in this volume make known to the Anglophone world for the first time the extraordinary scholarship that has been done on the complex issue of literacy in Japanese history from the Heian period through the early Meiji era. While Rubinger’s own work on this topic has set the stage, these essays demonstrate further the meticulous application of scientific methods to the raw data from Japan. This is a book not only for historians of Japan and East Asia but for anyone interested in the meaning of literacy outside the realm of alphabetic languages." — Joshua A. Fogel, Professor, York University, Canada

Author Information

Richard Rubinger has a PhD in Japanese studies from Columbia University and is a full professor at Indiana University. He has published numerous articles and chapters in books on his specialty: the history of Japanese literacy and education. He is also an experienced translator having translated the work of Motoyama Yukihiko with Jurgis Elisonas and others and Siebold’s Daughter, a translation of Yoshimura Akira’s Fuon Shiihoruto no musume.


No series for this title.

Table of Contents

List of Contributors; Preface to the English Edition; Chapter 1: Estimating Literacy in Pre-Modern Japan, by Kimura Masanobu (translated by Richard Rubinger); Chapter 2: “'Illiteracy”' Among Heian Period Aristocrats, by Suzuki Rie (translated by Richard Rubinger); Chapter 3: Learning and Literacy Among Ikkō Ikki Adherents, by Ohto Yasuhiro (translated by Richard Rubinger); Chapter 4: Literacy and Orality in Support of Christian Beliefs in Early Modern Japan, by Kimura Masanobu (translated by Richard Rubinger); Chapter 5: Personal Marks and Literacy Among Early-Modern Japanese Farmers, by Umemura Kayo (translated by Richard Rubinger); Chapter 6: Literacy in Early Modern Wakasa and Echizen Regions, by Yakuwa Tomohiro (translated by David Nelson); Chapter 7: Education of Provincial Merchants in Early Modern Aizu: Evidence from the Keiseikan Diary, by Ohta Motoko (translated by Charles Andrews); Chapter 8: Literacy in Ozenji Village in the Early Nineteenth Century, by Ohto Yasuhiro (translated by Gregory Johnson); Chapter 9: Early Meiji Literacy: The Case of Wakayama Prefecture, by Kawamura Hajime (translated by Terence Jackson).


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